REVIEW: Northanger Abbey | Genesian Theatre, Sydney
Matthew Francis has made a pretty good fist of adapting Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey for the stage. And Genesian Theatre, purveyor of all things traditional in the theatre, has, in its turn, made a pretty good fist of presenting it.
I wouldn’t typically begin a review with notes on lighting design, but it must be said that Tim Carter’s contributions to such are extraordinarily good and, as well as making the very most of Owen Gimblett’s set design, along with Nicola Griggs’ equally sensational costumes, are responsible for much, if not most, of the evocation of gothic fantasy and hyperreal romance. Susan Lafford-Jacob & Jess Zapelli, as operators, ensure Carter’s design is realised impeccably, too.
Mind you, for the most part, the actors are no slouches, either. The courtly dancing might look a little awkward, but the Venetian mask work is deft. Overall, director Carissa Teeling (and AD, Debbie Smith) can be justly proud of the teams she’s recruited both on and off stage.
Sam Prior is quite brilliant as Catherine Morland, as if designed by Austen herself. She seems to have every relative sensibility for the role, not to mention an expressive and beautiful face that puts her in the Bonham-Carter, or even Hepburn, class. The character’s good-natured naivete is played to a tee. (Well, an ‘n’.)
Tiff C Stoecker is Isabella Thorpe and, as with Prior, when I say she is Isabella, I mean she inhabits the role almost consummately, as the counterpoint to Catherine’s well-meaning, caring character. Isabella’s loyalty and devotion to Catherine is compromised by her addictive propensity towards ‘loose lips sink ships’.
Thomas Greader is John Thorpe, Isabella’s brother, and a more boorish, boastful individual one couldn’t hope to find. Greader’s reading is a treat, as he captures all the vain self-centredness of the character with elaborate affectation. Meg Mooney is fine as the pedestrian Mrs Allen, a woman one can well imagine whiling away hours crocheting, or shopping.
Ray Mainsbridge is very well cast indeed, as the handsome, intelligent, sensitive and charming Henry Tilney, who proves a much more suitable suitor than the would-if-he could John Thorpe. Mainsbridge’s performance is elegant; almost debonair, or what used to be called debonair.
Penny Day is both the widowed Mrs Thorpe and Mrs Morland, mother to Catherine and James; as the first, vicariously proud of her children and, as the latter, bucolic, practical and uncomplicated. Hers are competent performances, despite the fact there isn’t nearly as much colour or scope to play with in these roles.
Justine Kacir is also highly effective as the guileless, put upon Eleanor Tilney, younger sister to the more confident Henry who, unlike her, is more apt to stand up to the capricious tyranny of their father, ‘General’ Tilney, played well, if a little self-consciously, by Mark Nagle.
Nicholas Pond is more convincing as the prototypical sensitive new age guy, James Morland, who has his heart unceremoniously broken by the superficial and selfish Isabella, who has no compunction about publicly humiliating him, despite his obviously heartfelt devotion. Jon Prowse seems quite ill at ease, if adequate, as Mr Morland: yes, he’s s’posed to be an inoffensive, innocuous character, but Prowse makes him a nervous one.
One gets the sense Francis has relied heavily on Austen’s richly-drawn characters, and why not? After all, does anyone create more vivid or recognisable personalities on the page? He’s kept the deceptive pace of Austen’s narrative alive too, and thrown principal focus onto the journey from naivety to worldliness, and even premature world weariness, by Catherine.
Genesian has ensured it’s a good, if quiet way to spend a wintry Saturday evening. Or any other night of the week.
The details: Northanger Abbey is at the Genesian Theatre in Sydney until August 20. Tickets on the venue website.